On the night of January 11th, 2013, Safe Space lost its president, Christine Molnar. The reactions of her executive staff, her employees and the entire social services community, spoke to what a special leader she was. When one examines these reactions, one sees a textbook portrait of an effective leader. Christine’s leadership revealed several key elements:
VISION: No organization grows or reaches its potential without a compelling vision of its future. The vision must be clear, aspirational and inspirational, so it can move the organization to a better place by inspiring the entire staff to pursue it. A vision must be effectively communicated and easily understood to prevent confusion over where the organization is going and why. Chris’ vision for Safe Space was to make a positive and observable impact for at-risk children and youth in Southeast Queens. Safe Space would do this by providing a community-based, outcome-focused and integrated model of care delivered by a highly skilled and motivated staff. This vision was passionately felt and everyone at Safe Space from the senior executives to the newest clerical staff, were committed to achieving it. Every choice, including hiring and firing, financial and program management decisions, were guided by this vision. It is a testament to Chris, that upon her passing, the entire organization came together to reaffirm their commitment to this shared vision and to dedicate their efforts to achieving it for Chris.
INSPIRING STAFF: Her vision motivated staff. But a vision alone doesn’t make success. One needs strategy and execution as well, and that requires an inspired staff. The staff must believe in what they are doing with a passion so that when obstacles occur, as they always do, each person does what it takes to achieve success. At Safe Space, staff members are inspired at every level as exhibited during Hurricane Sandy. Staff who lost everything themselves were taking two buses to help their clients who were in the same situation. Chris inspired staff through her own example. Every decision she made was client-focused and based on how it would specifically help a child or family. Setbacks were learning points not blaming points. She made known her belief in her staff and thus inspired them to be better in everything they did.
TRUST: A leader cannot do it alone. Research shows that people are more successful if their leaders believe in their abilities. In business circles it’s called the Pygmalion Effect - giving someone a reputation to live up to. When people believe in the vision and the leader believes in them, there is nothing they can’t accomplish. Chris was a participatory leader who gave her staff wide leeway to do what they believed needed to be done. In tight fiscal times, if an executive needed an additional staff person, she trusted his or her judgment and gave her support. Knowing she trusted them so much, they continued to strive to earn that trust. For difficult decisions, they sought her input and advice, knowing she trusted them to make the right decision. She encouraged all staff to do the same, whether dealing with clients or each other.
MODEL OF EXCELLENCE: A true leader makes everyone around them better by setting a high standard of excellence and holding themselves to it. By their example, they motivate others to meet that standard themselves. Everyone around such a leader works at a higher level. This makes the leader better as well. Chris demonstrated continuous improvement, the striving to always be better tomorrow than you were today. Everyone who worked with Chris became better themselves because she was a model of excellence.
RESILIENCE: The mark of a leader comes not when everything is going well and one is achieving victory after victory. Rather it comes from challenge. A leader meets challenge after challenge, no matter how overwhelming they seem. The leader does not give in to despair, drawing instead on his or her inner resources to continue the fight, to bounce back and overcome the challenge. Chris came to an organization that was in deep trouble, financially and programmatically. In under four years, she transformed the organization while enduring numerous chalenges. Early on when it was difficult to make payroll, she had to eliminate an entire level of management. In addition, she endured turnover after turnover in her finance department. She overcame the immediate financial challenges only to be faced with the loss of her chief program officer and other key players. All this occurred while making major improvements in programming, developing staff, setting a new strategic direction and building a board. At her lowest point she wondered if she had chosen the right career. But she dug in, summoned all her strength, and met and overcame each challenge. As a result, her executive team, and indeed all the employees of Safe Space, came to see her as the anchor that they could depend on to weather any storm - which came to fruition with Sandy.
CALM IN A STORM: In addition to resilience, a leader must project calmness even when fires are (literally) burning all around or waters are rising. Other executives and staff need assurance that someone is in charge, someone who is confident about handling the situation and has the strength and courage to meet the challenge. Everyone looks to the leader, to lead them out of the difficulty. This was shown emphatically when Hurricane Sandy hit. Far Rockaway was devastated. Most of the children and families served by Safe Space were deeply affected. Staff themselves who lived in Far Rockaway lost their homes, their cars and everything they owned. Chris immediately mobilized her executives, gave directions as to what needed to be done, and provided the resources to do it. She immediately placed an executive in charge with the responsibility to coordinate the efforts of every division of Safe Space, providing the integrated approach required to meet the emergency needs. She provided the staff with whatever was necessary for their relief efforts. She was a model of calm and deliberation that anchored her staff no matter what the circumstances. The result was a level of response that can be followed in future disasters.
SELF SACRIFICING: True leadership is a calling; not done for power or self-aggrandizement, but embracing the need to make personal sacrifices to help an organization achieve its mission and vision. Chris was a role model for her staff; always putting the organization, its clients and its staff first. In her early days, Chris realized that the executive staff should be located where the service was actually being provided: in Queens. She moved the executive offices from Manhattan to Queens even though it resulted in adding two hours to her daily commute. When she needed to impose layoffs and postpone benefit payments, she first had herself and her executives take a ten percent pay cut. She needed to sacrifice first and more if she wanted her staff to sacrifice. And the staff did pull together to get through a difficult time. As soon as conditions warranted, Chris resumed all payments and thanked her staff for their sacrifice. Her staff knew that Chris always gave as much as she expected them to give.
NO EGO: Many books have been written about servant leadership. Servant leaders see themselves as having a mission of greater good. It’s not about the leader or the leader’s ego. It is about the mission and the people working to achieve the mission. During times of difficulty or even more, during the times of success, a true leader gives credit, doesn’t take it. All those around her saw Chris as the driver for Safe Space’s success but Chris never saw it that way or succumbed to the temptation of ego. She always gave credit to the staff for the success that Safe Space realized.
CONTINUOUS LEARNING: “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know”. This is a motto successful leaders live by. Successful leaders know their limitations and so search for those having the knowledge the organization needs to learn. They continue their education and encourage their staff to do the same. Chris deliberately joined associations and groups with people she could learn from and she eagerly sought the advice of others. She brought experts to Safe Space to lead new initiatives and bring a level of expertise and knowledge to areas where neither she nor her staff possessed the knowledge. She initiated a leadership capacity building program. She herself was eager to learn and never too proud to admit it. Chris saw continuous learning as the path to success both for herself and the entire staff of Safe Space..
True leaders are transformational. They take what they find and change it so that the organization, its staff, and its clients reach their true potential. Chris Molnar moved Safe Space from a struggling agency to a recognized leader in social services in Southeast Queens. Chris, a true leader, transformed an agency and, in the process, changed for the better all she met. Her legacy is a model of excellence that can guide leaders in every industry.
Eugene P. Buccini, Ph.D. is Professor of Management at WCSU & a Management Consultant.